Unsung Hero: Cindy Clark

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It would be difficult not to like Cindy Clark.

Mike Bush-News-Bulletin photo: Unsung Hero Cindy Clark sits by a flower bed in front of her 101-year-old Belen home.

It would be difficult not to appreciate all she does for the people of Belen and the surrounding community.

Clark, former executive director of the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce, a transplanted Midwesterner and treasurer and ex-president of the former Belen Breakfast Optimist Club, is truly a woman about town:

• Three or four times a year, the former physical education teacher organizes blood drives that collect dozens of pints of precious plasma.

• She is a Big Sister to a teenage girl.

• She is a repeat volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

• She is an active member of Crafty Ladies.

• She participates in neighborhood cleanups, sometimes far from her own home, and is not afraid to get her hands dirty or break a sweat.

• At considerable cost, she has renovated a century-old house in old Belen.

“I think Belen could be such a neat place,” Clark says. “This is our town.”

At the same time, she laments the rundown look that characterizes parts of the city. Her neighbors in the “Original Town Site” where she has lived for the past decade say they often see her walking her dogs and, at the same time, picking up litter. Clark, with typical modesty, says she’s not alone.

“A lot of people pick up trash,” she says. “People try.”

Clark was born in Wisconsin, grew up in Illinois and went to school in Michigan. After college, she moved to Denver, where she taught physical education for nearly 20 years.

At age 43, however, a hip replacement demanded an early retirement. Afterward, she went back to school — this time in Toledo, Ohio — to pursue a master’s degree in public health education at the Medical School of Ohio and Bowling Green University.

While there, she did an internship at a women’s shelter, providing guidance on such matters as nutrition and exercise.

“It was such a rewarding experience,” she recalls. “I knew then that I always wanted to help people and help others become the best they can be.”

In Ohio, she volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit agency that helps needy families worldwide build decent, affordable housing. After graduation, master’s degree in hand, Clark decided she did not want to stay in Toledo. In fact, she says, she was tired of living in cold places.

Luckily, Habitat for Humanity steered her toward a house-building program in Rio Communities. She and other volunteers with their own recreational vehicles were called “Caravaners.”

It was January 2001 and Clark, who owned a pop-up camper, asked what the weather would be like. “Don’t worry,” she was told. She asked herself, “How cold can it be? After all, it’s New Mexico.”

Today, with hindsight and a retrospective smile, she remembers shivering through the night, cuddling with her dog, trying to sleep while the temperature outside plunged to nine very chilly degrees. Nonetheless, she apparently liked it here. She sold her place in Toledo, packed up her belongings and moved to Belen.

She found the people exceedingly friendly and more than welcoming. She recalls one incident shortly after she moved here: She left her clothes in a washing machine at a laundromat on Reinken Avenue and went shopping. When she returned a few hours later, the clothes were gone.

“Uh-oh,” she exclaimed.

Then, to her great relief, the proprietor handed her a basket of clean, dry, neatly folded laundry.

“No charge,” the woman said with a big smile.

Clark was 57 when she decided to make New Mexico her home. Finding a job wasn’t easy, she recalls, but she landed a position at Central New Mexico Community College as a health care coordinator. However, she disliked the commute to Albuquerque, so when the chamber of commerce position opened about three years later, she jumped.

She worked there more than four years — from 2005 to 2010 — as executive director, often closely with then-Mayor Ronnie Torres.

“She always went above and beyond the call of duty at the chamber,” Torres recalls. “She has such a passion for the community, from restoring an old home to volunteering for so many different things. She was always there to help anyone who needed assistance.”

Clark, Torres says, “was always such an ambassador for the city.”

The current mayor, Rudy Jaramillo, feels much the same. He says he has known Clark for many years and she has always been involved in some effort to make Belen — and Valencia County — better places.

He cites her work with the Breakfast Optimist Club in providing scholarships for young people and other services to the youth of the community. He also praises her work recognizing the county’s finest police officers.

“She’s a great choice for an Unsung Hero,” Jaramillo says.

For her part, Clark is clearly surprised by the award.

“I’m shocked,” she says. “It is such an honor. I don’t think I deserve it.”

But her friend and sister Crafty Lady, Susan Reese, says she thinks the award is “just fantastic.” One would be hard-pressed to find a more caring and giving person than Clark, she says.

“When she retired, Cindy decided she wanted to do something for other people and that’s exactly what she’s done,” Reese said.

The first thing Clark got involved in following her time at the chamber of commerce was to become a caregiver for senior citizens. At one point in life, she had worked as a nurse’s aide, and she thought she’d like to help older people. She did that for about 18 months. Now she spends her time volunteering here and there, for this and for that.

The Crafty Ladies meet at the Peralta United Methodist Church and produce Christmas decor for a big annual sale just before Thanksgiving.

But Clark is probably best known for her tireless work with the Breakfast Optimist Club of Belen, which disbanded in June. The Optimist Club organized community events, including the yearly Breakfast with Santa and Fishing Jamborees. It also honored deserving students, coordinated essay and oratorical contests and recognized law enforcement officers.

The club’s longest serving member and another past-president, Cortez Kibble, said he thinks it’s “wonderful” that Clark is being recognized for her work in Belen.

“She’s always been highly supportive of community programs and she tries to contribute to the success of those programs as much as she can,” Kibble says. “Cindy is very sympathetic. She’s always willing to listen to and share the other person’s viewpoint about a given issue.

“She also did an excellent job as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce,” he adds.

Clark is divorced, but remains friendly with her ex-husband. She is “very close” to her step-children. A few months ago, they all had a great time at a reunion in Colorado, she says.

She has also been a Big Sister for the past five years. Her Little Sister, Kieana, now 13, has blossomed in many ways since they’ve been together, although Clark credits the girl’s mother more than anyone.

Clark also has two dogs — Annie and Swan — and a cat named Bibs.

Her 101-year-old house can only be described as beautiful. Perhaps most striking are the gabled roof and the many Gwen Thorman murals gracing the interior walls. And, inside and out, get ready for her favorite color: Her furniture and curtains are blue, she often wears blue clothing, the trim on her house is blue.

Despite all the accolades expressed by just about everyone who knows Cindy Clark, her old Optimist Club colleague, Kibble, may have put it best: “She always puts the community before herself.”